Ask any bodybuilder—or any fitness-conscious dude, really—about his go-to source of lean protein, and the answer is virtually always the same: chicken breast. Easy to cook, relatively cheap, and virtually devoid of fat and carbs, the almighty chicken breast has (rightfully) ascended to the top of the fitness nutrition pantheon for pretty much everyone but vegetarians. That much is easy to figure out.
The hard part, on the other hand, comes when you’re in the grocery store meat aisle, standing slack-jawed at the impossibly vast selection of chicken products arrayed before you. It’s all chicken, and yet it seems like you need a freaking Ph.D. in poultry to buy a bird—especially if you give a damn about how that bird was raised, lived, and cared for.
To wit: What’s the deal with “vegetarian-fed”? What’s the difference between “free range” versus “cage free”? And what the hell does it mean when chicken is “organic,” anyway? But fear not, fellow denizens of the grocery store: We’ve got you covered. Here’s your guide to getting the good stuff—without emptying your wallet.
Nutritional Value: Breasts vs. Thighs vs. Wings
Chicken breasts are popular among the fitness set because they are essentially pure lean protein. A 100-gram serving of chicken breast (about two-thirds of a cup) has 31g of protein, compared to only 3.6g of fat and 0 carbs, for a total of 165 calories, according to the USDA's food composition database. (The rest is mostly water, although chicken also has hefty servings of potassium, B-vitamins, and iron).
By comparison, a 100-gram serving of chicken thigh has 24g of protein and 8g of fat—so, twice the fat and only 75% of the protein—and 177 calories. Drumsticks tilt that ratio even further, with 18 g of protein, 9g of fat, and 159 calories per 100 grams. (A single drumstick, without skin, is 122g.) Wings are a slightly leaner option, with 30g of protein, 8g of fat, and 203 calories per 100g (as long as you’re not slathering them with blue cheese dressing).
The advantage to those less lean cuts? Thighs, wings, and drumsticks are usually cheaper than breasts—so they’re not a terrible option for relatively healthy (monounsaturated) fat and protein if you’re on a budget. Another pro tip: If you’re buying boneless, skinless chicken breasts, look for the whole breast, rather than the pre-sliced cutlets or fillets, since that extra bit of slicing (which you can easily do at home) usually comes with a hefty up-charge.
What All Those Different Labels Mean, Part I: Official USDA Labels
The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service oversees every term that shows up on chicken packaging. If a poultry farm or food company wants to label their chicken “natural,” or even “fresh,” those terms get double-checked by federal regulators to make sure they’re truthful and accurate.
Where the feathers start to fly, though, is determining the standards for each of those labels. Here are the USDA’s officially listed terms:
“Free-range” or “free-roaming”: Farmers must demonstrate to inspectors that the poultry “has been allowed access to the outside.” (Note: This isn’t the same thing as “spending most of its time outside”—only that the bird has been allowed access.)
“Fresh”: This chicken has never been below 26 °F (the temperature at which poultry freezes).
“Natural”: No artificial ingredients nor added color. “Natural” chicken can only be “minimally processed,” meaning it’s not allowed to “fundamentally alter the product.” An example of “minimally processed” chicken is boneless and skinless breasts—it’s not dramatically changing the product.
“No hormones”: Chickens aren’t allowed to be raised with hormones anyway, so if a producer wants to use this label, they also have to note that "Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones."
“No antibiotics”: Famers must provide documentation to inspectors proving that the animals were raised without antibiotics.
“Organic”: “Certified Organic,” and its accompanying green label, is essentially the USDA’s gold standard for food quality. “Certified Organic” is regulated by the USDA’s National Organic Program, which has some serious regulatory muscle: Certified Organic producers receive both scheduled and unannounced visits from regulators.
Organic chickens are raised on organic land, and are fed 100% organic food for their entire lives. They can’t be given antibiotics, and they have year-round access to the outdoors. By definition, organic chickens are “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “pasture raised.” Read more of our reporting on the Certified Organic label here.
Bottom line: If you’re looking for high-quality, ethically raised chicken, keep an eye out for the USDA’s Certified Organic label. It’s a simple way to make sure you’re getting the good stuff (even if it is typically more expensive).
What All Those Different Labels Mean, Part II: Third-Party Labels and Standards
Notice a few missing from the above regulations? How about “vegetarian-fed” or “cage-free”?
Fact is, not all labels on chicken are standardized by the USDA. Some are handled on a case-by-case basis, while others are standardized by third-party animal welfare groups, who inspect farmers and then report those certifications to the USDA. Each organization publishes its own list of standards, which usually cover every aspect of raising animals. They are typically more stringent than even the USDA’s Certified Organic program. For example: While Certified Organic allows for common poultry practices like beak cutting, de-clawing, and forced molting, these do not.
Here are a few notable ones:
Animal Welfare Approved: First created in 2006, AWA publishes an exhaustive list of standards—billed as “the highest standards of any third-party auditing program,” according to the Humane Society—for virtually every aspect of animals raised for slaughter, from chickens to dairy goats to bison. Its chicken standards are limited to working independent family farms, and are enforced by inspectors at least once a year. (animalwelfareapproved.org)
Certified Humane: Not to be confused with the American Humane Society, the Certified Humane label is managed by Humane Farm Animal Care. Its chicken standards [PDF] are science-backed and comprehensive, ranging from feed and water supply to the design of hen houses and healthcare practices. HFAC has even created an app for farmers to help diagnose health and welfare problems among their poultry flocks. (certifiedhumane.org)
Humane Heartland: Overseen by the American Humane Society since 2000, the Humane Heartland (aka American Humane Certified) program bills itself as the “gold standard” of animal welfare. Its standards for chickens “require that an animal be healthy, comfortable, well-nourished, safe, able to express normal behavior, and free from unpleasant states such as pain, fear, and distress.” (humaneheartland.org)
Food Alliance Certified: First launched in 1998, Food Alliance works with small and midsize farmers across North America. The organization maintains livestock standards for everything from shellfish producers to cattle farmers, as well as poultry producers. (foodalliance.org)